Senate Estimates: Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee
Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee
Estimates hearings 17 October 2012
- Senator RHIANNON
- Mr Pirani
Full transcript available here
Senator RHIANNON: My questions concern the AEC party registration process. In the AEC process to check on party registration applications, is any written communication sent by the AEC to the party member in advance of a phone call from the AEC to check if the person is a member of the party?
Mr Pirani: The answer to that is no. The checking that we undertake is a sample of the number of members. There is an algorithm that has been developed that we have had advice on from the Australian Bureau of Statistics concerning what size sample we need to take that would give us an answer as to whether the 500 members of a political party exist. Those members are contacted by the AEC by phone. We ask to speak to the person that has been nominated by the political party as a member and, depending on whether their answer is yes or no, that will influence the outcome as to whether there are 500 members and we will accept them getting over that threshold. So, no, we do not write to the members. We do ask, though, that, when prospective political parties put in their membership lists to us, they take some action to make sure their members are aware—because they are their members not ours—that they may expect contact from the AEC to confirm that the person is in fact a member of the political party that is seeking to be registered.
Senator RHIANNON: But I imagine you would acknowledge that some members would not be expecting a phone call from the AEC.
Mr Pirani: I think we have done some work—I will take that on notice—to put in the revised party registration handbook that we make sure that the secretaries who lodge the application with us and the proposed registered officers make their members aware that they can expect contact from the AEC to confirm that the person has been registered. We have had allegations made in the past that people went into petrol stations and signed a petition and the next thing they knew they were being touted as being members of a political party for party registration. Clearly, in those sorts of situations, the person had no idea that their details were being provided to the AEC in support of registration of a proposed political party.
Senator RHIANNON: Would you agree that some people receiving a phone call from the AEC would be reluctant to acknowledge party membership even if it were true, because they would have no way of being certain that it is an AEC employee who has telephoned them and they may not wish to confirm such information in a phone conversation with someone who is a stranger to them?
Mr Pirani: We have a process in place whereby the officer clearly identifies who they are, where they are ringing from and what it is about. If the person needs further information, they can phone back. So it is not a cold call necessarily; it is one where my staff will expect that the person can phone back to query where they are from. The experience that I have seen in the past four years is that, no, we have not had any incidents which I am aware of where a party has failed registration on the basis that one, two or more people have said to us that, no, they are not a member of the political party.
Senator RHIANNON: I think we would all acknowledge people get a lot phone calls that they do not want with the call centres et cetera. Have you considered following it up with a letter so that people have the option to reply to the AEC with confirmation or denial of their membership?
Mr Pirani: At this stage, no, Senator, we have not considered that. If there are any specific instances where there has been a concern, I am more than happy to take that on board and to have a look at it; but, at this stage, the process seems to be working fairly well. We have had very few challenges to decisions that have been made on party registration in recent times. If that were a concern, I would have expected that it would have been brought forward and we would have had possible reviews at either the full Electoral Commission, which is the internal review body—the three members of the commission deal with it in an internal review—or at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. As far as I am aware, we have not had an allegation of a person denying that they were a party member even though they were a party member, and that we have somehow refused party registration on the basis of that phone call.
Senator RHIANNON: I want to understand how you then handle the party in this process. Why doesn't the AEC inform the party of the names of those telephoned who have not confirmed to the AEC in a phone conversation that they are a member of the party?
Mr Pirani: The reason for that is to do with privacy. The issue is that when a person denies they are a member of a political party, then as far as we are concerned they have withdrawn any consent for us to provide that information back to the party. That is different to the situation that we have if we cannot find the person on the electoral roll. We notify the party that is seeking registration so that they can go out and chase up the person, to check or confirm their enrolment details, and they will come back to us with additional information. But on the instance when a person denies they are a member of a party, then as far as we are concerned, under information privacy principal 11, the person has refused consent for that information to be passed back to the party.
Senator RHIANNON: Would you see that there could be competing rights here that need to be considered, such as a person's expectation to have their name removed from the party's membership list and database and the party's capacity to remove such nonmembers from its membership list and database?
Mr Pirani: We have no role in relation to individual parties and their internal organisations. All that we have is that when they register or seek to be registered with us they have to establish they have the minimum 500 members. Anything else about a person being removed from a party et cetera is a private contractual matter between the party and the individual person. It is not a space that the AEC has any powers to deal with. We have the power to look at the Constitution, to make sure of three things: they are standing candidates for a federal election, they are organised in a manner which gives them access to the electoral roll, and, lastly, they have a secretary who is responsible for dealing with correspondence. They are the only powers that the AEC is given in the internal regulatory affairs of a political party.
Senator RHIANNON: So you would have been in this situation where you have this ongoing relationship for a period with a party that gets some people knocked back. Can you see that for a party in that situation it would be difficult for the secretary to provide an accurate supplementary or revised list of members to AEC and to declare that all of those on the list are members if they do not have that information from you?
Mr Pirani: Sorry, Senator, I fail to see—the electoral roll is a public document.
Senator RHIANNON: Yes.
Mr Pirani: Anybody can go into an AEC office and check the details and the enrolment of an individual on the electoral roll, and that includes proposed political parties. There is no limit on their ability to do that. The issue for us has been that it is the proposed secretary and officers of a political party that is seeking registration, the act has the onus on them to satisfy us that there are 500 members and those members are either on the electoral roll or are eligible to be on the electoral roll. The electoral roll is a public document.
Senator RHIANNON: Yes, I obviously understand that, but the point is that you require the 500 names, you have been given the 500 names, you have knocked some back because they have said they are not a member, but you do not supply that information. I go back to that point I made earlier about competing rights—privacy is incredibly important, but also don't we have to balance it out? Don't people have a right to remove their information from the database of the party?
Mr Pirani: That is a private contractual matter, Senator. The issue for the AEC here is that if we knock a party back, they can always reapply. And so hopefully the second time they come back to us they will have taken some more care in going through the electoral roll and their register of members, which they submit to us. Of course they only have to submit 500. They do not have to submit every single person who they claim to be a member; they have only got to get across that 500 threshold. I am not aware of many cases in recent times where we have knocked them back on the issue of the 500 members.
Senator RHIANNON: Why does the AEC require parties to provide the date of birth for every member when it is only needed for those who cannot be found on the electoral roll?
Mr Pirani: Because for people with similar names, the only way we can compare the electoral roll with a membership list is with name, address and date of birth. Date of birth is not on the public version of the roll. It is on the version of the roll that we have in our database and that is the only way we can accurately confirm the identity of an individual—because of similar names.
Senator RHIANNON: It is just in for extra information that is not required to get onto the electoral roll?
Mr Pirani: No; we get the date of birth that is on the roll.
Senator RHIANNON: You have that.
Mr Pirani: It is not in the public version of the roll. The applicant for registration of a political party will not necessarily know, from the electoral roll, that they have got the right John Smith at a particular address and we will be able to ascertain that because we will have the date of birth as well—so we can confirm which John Smith it is.
CHAIR: Your final question, Senator.
Senator RHIANNON: Yes, final question. Does the AEC have any plans to review its process in relation to determining registration of a party and if a party has 500 members?
Mr Pirani: At this stage, no; but again, we are always open and happy, if there are suggestions that this has resulted in some injustice or lack of governance in the decision-making process, to take any comments and feedback on board. But at this stage, the privacy issue has been paramount and when we get people on the
telephone telling my staff, 'No, we are not a member; no, I do not agree that I have been in any way involved with this proposed political party,' that says to us not to give that information back.
Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.